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Being a writer of political fiction can't be easy in 1998. Not only did the Berlin Wall come down, bringing the Cold War to a screeching halt and practically wiping out your whole raison d'être in one fell swoop, but on any given news day, the plain truth is not only far stranger than fiction, it's downright surreal, driving most writers to the outer limits of their imagination just to keep up.
On the other hand, Charles McCarry, who with such books as Shelley's Heart and The Secret Lovers has established himself as one of the most provocative and sharp-edged writers of contemporary political fiction, seems to have accepted these post-Cold War realities as a challenge, as an opportunity to entertain his wildest fancies. In his latest novel, Lucky Bastard, he's done exactly that: thrown caution to the winds and created a story that is sexy, unpredictable and extravagantly imaginative without ever losing the ring of recognizable truth. If in the process McCarry manages to make playful, naughty fun of some of contemporary American culture's most sacred myths, then all the better.
What if, McCarry boldly asks, one of our most cherished (and martyred) ex-presidents, during the course of one of his fabled departures from the straight-and-narrow, were to have fathered an illegitimate son? And what if that son -- who possesses some of his father's most famous (and some of his most notorious) traits -- were to seek out for himself a career in politics, rising first to state attorney general, then lieutenant governor, then governor, and then ... beyond?
His name is Jack Adams -- or rather, John Fitzgerald Adams -- and, as he tells it, his mother, who was at the time a member of the Navy Nurse Corps, met a certain young Navy officer in a San Francisco hospital shortly after a Japanese destroyer smashed into his PT boat in the Pacific. The window of opportunity was brief, but the young officer's injuries were not so severe that he missed it. Twenty-one years later, the product of that quick tryst surfaces on history's radar as a student at Columbia with skills as a politician that are characterized as a "natural talent, flowing straight from the unconscious."
This talent is part of the luck referred to in the book's title. But it goes beyond that to a kind of genius for studying people, for finding out what they want and "making them believe he was giving it to them even when he wasn't." This uncanny knack for making others like him and trust him is the prime component of the character's unfathomable good luck. (It's a characteristic he shares with another political Jack -- the candidate in Primary Colors.) McCarry also asks us to consider what might happen if Jack, while clawing his way to the top of the political heap, were to somehow come to the attention of an agent from Soviet intelligence who sees the young American as a chance to realize "the ultimate dream of the KGB" -- to see an agent of the Soviet government elected as the president of the United States. To accomplish this, the agent must take advantage of yet another aspect of Jack's personality that he inherited from his father -- "an aura of sexual glamour" matched in intensity only by a voracious sexual appetite that is both the driving force behind his irresistible charm and, ultimately, the engine of his undoing.
Clearly, McCarry intends for this last aspect of Jack's character to be Kennedy-esque. But this scenario also applies to a more contemporary political figure who also seems to suffer from a "zipper problem"; someone who has himself been described both in his politics and his many reported excesses as the bastard child of JFK. McCarry's shrewdness and skill are evident in the way he has orchestrated these character traits so that they have a sort of double resonance, echoing off the Kennedy legend while also functioning as a rousing absurdist riff on Clintonian politics.
If, in all this, McCarry is essentially realistic, he is by no means straight-faced. In this regard, he has more in common with Richard Condon than with John Le Carré. A keen sense of proportion guides even McCarry's most outrageous flights. He may tease the boundaries of plausibility, but never so much that his wit loses its potency. It's a cynical, cut-throat world that he's created here, a place where no weakness goes unexploited and no good deed goes unpunished. -- Salon
Through Dmitri, a former KGB colonel living in happy, post-Communist exile in America, we meet Jack Fitzgerald Adams, a cowardly, good-looking, sexually prodigious liar from Tannery Falls, Ohio. Recruited by the KGB while attending Columbia University during the era of the Vietnam War protests, Jack is eagerly led by Dmitri's diabolically intelligent superior, a suavely satanic bermensch known as Peter, into the kinky clutches first of radical Marxist Greta Forst, who has torrid sex with him in public places, and then into those of brainy Harvard MBA (and secret fanatic Communist subversive) Morgan Weatherby, who has almost no sex in him at all.
After Peter flashes Jack incriminating photos of his sexual exploits, Jack agrees to marry Morgan and practice law back in Ohio with his best friend, crippled Vietnam vet Danny Miller. But alas, unbeknownst to Danny, Jack had raped Danny's wife, Cindy, while Danny was overseas. Unsure whether it was Danny or Jack who got her pregnant, Cindy had aborted the fetus and has hated Jack ever since. Though Morgan wrings the truth from her, this betrayal by Jack anticipates his ever larger and more audacious acts of fraud, carelessness, and sexual license as his KGB handlers (now working for the Chinese) craft him into a populist hero for an easily seduced electorate. Nasty Kennedy-Clinton parallels abound ina ribald, snickeringly ironic political fantasy. McCarry dedicates Lucky Bastard to the late Richard Condon, whose dizzy, over-the-top social satires it resembles.
The professor thought that I looked like Lenin. He often said so; he had said so the first time we met, years before in Cuba. Now, in a Chinese restaurant in Harlem, he was saying so again.
"The faintly--forgive me--Mephistophelean regard," he said. "The cheekbones, the forehead. Have you ever considered growing a beard?"
Unlike the professor, who cultivated the Che Guevara look--chestnut beard, green fatigues, romantic pallor--I was not trying to impersonate a terrorist. My goal was to look like a bourgeois intellectual who bought his clothes at Brooks Brothers, ate lunch in midtown restaurants where the headwaiters knew him by name, and lived on the Upper West Side with a highly intelligent wife and two cats. My speech was Eastern Establishment in tone and word choice. My personal English tutor, Princeton '31, a ruined asset who had fled to Moscow in 1956 after the arrest of his handler, the great Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, had even taught me to write by the Palmer method.
Studying me, the professor said, "It's the eyes, the epicanthic fold. Really, Dmitri, it's uncanny! You and Vladimir Ilyich could have a common ancestor."
Yes, I thought, a rapist on horseback, absentee father of Holy Russia.
The professor was babbling. Our meetings always excited him, but tonight he had other anxieties. He was a member of the underground, a spotter of talent at Columbia University. The last time we met, three months before--an eternity for an agent--I had reprimanded him. The young men and women he had recommended to me so far were of no possible interest--bourgeois neurotics who marched in demonstrations, thought in bumper stickers, took LSD, and spoke in tongues. Next time, I had said, bring me the real thing. Besides, he was not comfortable in these surroundings. The restaurant was noisy, smoke-filled, hot. We were the only whites in the place.
I will call him Arthur. From Arthur's point of view, this neighborhood was the heart of darkness. The truth was, my choice of meeting place was a punishment and a warning, and he understood this. He was afraid. He was ashamed of being afraid. He was a man of the Left. In the abstract he loved these loud, merry, downtrodden people. But in reality he was what he was, a nice bourgeois boy from the suburbs, and they terrified him.
The waiter, a dark-skinned Cantonese with wary eyes, gave us menus. In tone-deaf Mandarin (he had memorized one thousand ideograms as an undergraduate), Arthur quizzed him about the specialties of the house. The waiter clearly had no idea that Arthur was speaking Chinese. "Numbah six very spicy; Numbah five very good," he replied.
Arthur asked me what I preferred. I told him to choose whatever he liked. He smiled approvingly, thinking no doubt that I was too much the Soviet man to eat for pleasure. He ordered Number five, mu shu pork with extra hoisin sauce, and Number six, whole grilled fish in chili sauce, with fried rice. And Chinese beer.
Arthur chattered on about Lenin. He had written his doctoral dissertation on the great man's private life, so he knew many out-of-the-way details. Was I aware that Vladimir Ilyich may have had Kalmyk blood? That he sang baritone in family musicales? Arthur pronounced the Russian forename and patronymic perfectly, with easy familiarity, as if in some earlier life he had sung folk songs with Lenin on that sealed train to the Finland Station, as if he had been entrusted to deliver secret messages for the revolution: Hang fifty kulaks a day as a demonstration to the peasants. The real Lenin, hater of romantics, would have added a postscript: Shoot the bearer.
The food came. Arthur asked for chopsticks. The waiter handed them over and stayed for a moment to watch him take his first mouthfuls. Arthur nodded and spoke the Mandarin word for delicious. The waiter smiled; I wondered if he had spat into the food. I drank my beer, ate a little plain rice.
"Are you sure you don't want anything else?" Arthur asked.
"The MSG keeps me awake," I replied.
Actually I was afraid of diarrhea, the spy's complaint; I had had a lot of that in Shanghai, my last post, although bad food was not the only reason for loose bowels during the Cultural Revolution. My assignment in China had been to penetrate the Red Guards and baptize a few converts for the future, and also to make certain assurances to old friends who were being taunted and whipped through the streets and exiled to hard labor in mines and farming communes. I gave them what help I could--which is to say, none--and promised them that the true cause would be waiting for them after the madness passed or (same thing) Mao died. Not many of them lived that long, or ever wanted to see another Russian if they did. But some did, as we shall see.
After that, my target in America, the campus antiwar movement, should have been easy. It was a soft target, in no way frightening or difficult, but I had made little progress. After a year of close observation I had concluded that the counterculture was not composed of serious people. Their rallies were just another form of entertainment, their slogans another kind of cheerleading. Their movement had no ideological core, no vanguard elite, no discipline. It was make-believe, a game, a holiday, a new kind of fraternity party. Combat boots instead of white bucks, drugs instead of beer, but the objectives were the same--sex and intoxication. The true revolutionary makes revolution to escape from the inescapable. In America, nothing is inescapable. These children knew they could escape any time they wished simply by going home again, by acknowledging the reality of money and choosing it. American capitalism would roll over them like the irresistible ocean that it is. We, the real Left, the eternal Left, would be left holding a second mortgage on their idealism. They could not make revolution, but they could enable it when its moment came, when its leader emerged.
What I required, what I was looking for, was the leader. Once I had found him, history would make the moment. But first, the man. Revolutions almost always begin with one man. One man is all I ever hoped for. Arthur's job was to find him for me. He was not the only talent spotter we had recruited, of course; there were others like him on other campuses. But he was mine, and he was the one whose failures were freshest in my mind.
Arthur finished his food. He put down his chopsticks and said, "I think I've found someone for you."
I said, "Name?"
This was not the question Arthur expected. He had been trained never to utter names in the presence of strangers. I repeated the question. He cleared his throat and murmured a reply. Music played very loud--a woman saying goodbye to lust. The people at the next table were making a lot of jovial noise. Arthur's voice was weak. I could not hear him. I made an impatient gesture: Louder.
He paused, looking left and right for secret policemen.
"Speak up," I said in a loud voice. "It's quite safe. The FBI has very few black agents. That's why we're here."
Arthur leaned across the table and whispered a name.
I said, "Arthur, I can't hear you."
He tried again. His voice broke; the words came out as a squeak. I shook my head, made a disgusted face.
At the next table a beautiful fat woman in a low-cut dress--large sarcastic eyes, skin the color of aubergine--turned and gazed at us, head to one side like some huge curious bird.
His voice breaking with the effort, Arthur shouted, "Jack Adams!"
I said, "Jack Adams? How long have you known this Jack Adams?"
"Two years," Arthur replied.
"Two years? Two years? And this is the first time I hear his name?"
Arthur cleared his throat. "Sorry," he said. He was deeply agitated now--averted eyes, trembling voice.
The fat beauty, bright-eyed and knowing, stared harder at Arthur. What were we? It was plain to see what she thought we were. We are taught in the craft that sometimes the best way to divert attention is to draw attention. I lifted Arthur's inert hand from the table and kissed it.
The woman guffawed. Now she knew everything about us that she needed to know. She lost interest and turned back to her friends.
Arthur was sorely in need of reassurance. I poured him the last of the beer. "My dear comrade," I said, using a word I seldom speak even in a whisper, "tell me about this Jack Adams."
"First of all," Arthur said, "Jack is that rara avis among Ivy League radicals, a birthright member of the proletariat."
I said, "Meaning what?"
"He's poor. Working-class. Ahme. No family, no connections, no influence. No future."
"So far, so good," I said. "Go on."
"He's an Ohio boy," Arthur said. "Alone in the world."
Jack Adams came from a long line of Ohio steelworkers. His forebears and their friends had been killed in fiery accidents in the mill or died of diseases caused by the superheated air they breathed. They had won World War II with prodigies of productivity and then been thrown onto the streets when the capitalists discovered they could buy steel cheaper from the defeated Japanese. Jack was an orphan, raised by his maternal grandparents in Tannery Falls, Ohio. He remembered the old days before the mills closed, the horizon glowing in the night from the blast furnaces, the smell of scorched air coming in the open windows of their little house, and the soft coal dust clinging to the wallpaper as it clung to the lining of the workers' lungs. His grandfather had lost his job like all the others, then died of drink. Jack was a child of the welfare system--social workers had bought his clothes, he had bought groceries with food stamps, the postman had delivered the monthly check with which his grandmother paid the endless mortgage on a house that had no market value. He had eaten free lunches at school, received free medical care. These details of lower-class life--the idea of losing everything, of having no recourse, of being glued to a certain fate, of being at the mercy of bureaucrats--fascinated Arthur, the son of a plastic surgeon, grandson of a banker. For at least four generations his family had lost nothing, had never considered it possible to do so.
In high school, Jack had been an honor student. His teachers loved him for his charming smile, for his eagerness to learn, and for his evident desire to grow up to be just like them. They had pushed him toward college, giving him better marks and better recommendations than perhaps he deserved. After making a high score on the standard college exams--Jack had an aptitude for aptitude tests, an aspect, no doubt, of his larger talent for giving answers that pleased his betters--he had been accepted at Columbia University with full financial aid. He was just as much of a success at Columbia as he had been at Tannery Palls High School, and for the same reasons. He paid rapt attention in class, he memorized, he regurgitated lectures without lapse or mistake. He was the best political science student Arthur had ever had--nimble in class, a good writer.
"There's more," Arthur said. "Jack is popular, very political--but a backstage person, not an up-front guy. He doesn't march with the troops. I think demonstrations scare him, actually--"
"Scare him?" I said.
"The unpredictability of the crowd, the idea of being arrested and handcuffed and dragged into the paddy wagon--"
"But it's all a game. Who has ever been injured at one of these things?"
"Lots of people," Arthur said. "That's beside the point. He's not a marcher, he's a thinker. He's close to the leaders of the movement. They listen to him. Most of the victories they get credit for are his ideas--defenestrating deans from first-floor windows, the defense of Harlem against callous capitalist exploitation by the university. A lot of the slogans. He's the invisible man of the Movement."
Arthur showed me a snapshot. Jack was quite presentable. An American boy. Curly hair, doughy young face, a brilliant smile: large square flashing teeth, eyes swimming with sincerity.
I said, "I am interested in his timidity."
"That may not be the right word for it," Arthur said. "Jack may not march on the Pentagon, but he's put his body on the line in other ways." He showed me another picture of Jack. In this one he was barely recognizable--an unsmiling near skeleton with unshaven cheeks. "This was taken on the last day of a forty-day water-only fast," Arthur said. "He lost seventy pounds."
"To beat the draft," Arthur replied. "An act of conscience. He refused to serve in an unjust war."
I said, "You mean he's a coward?"
Arthur flinched. This was not a word much used in the circles in which he traveled. He said, "Isn't everyone a coward in one way or another?"
"No. And cowards are always dangerous."
"Surely," Arthur said, "the truth is more complicated than that."
Was it really? I did not press the point. Arthur was a Freudian as well as a Marxist-Leninist. He did not wish to admit, ever, that things are what they seem. In his system of thought, the truth was always hidden, but discoverable by the enlightened, using approved methods of thought.
I said, "A question: What exactly is so special about this fellow?"
Arthur hesitated. "This will sound strange, coming from a good Marxist-Leninist like myself who believes so deeply in historical inevitability," he said at last. "But the answer is, Jack is lucky. In fact, he's the luckiest bastard I've ever met."
Arthur said, "Dmitri, believe me, I've never been more serious in my life. He has a gift. Jack's a born politician. He's marginal in many other ways--IQ of 119, just like JFK--"
"Wait," I said. "How do you know what Kennedy's IQ was?"
Arthur blinked. "I taught at Choate for a year. That was Kennedy's school. It's in the files. The point is, it's a highly significant coincidence in Jack's mind."
"You told him about this coincidence?"
"An IQ of 119 says he is neither smart nor stupid. Surely he was not glad to know this."
"The coincidence made up for it. I mean, look where Kennedy ended up."
"Kennedy's father was not a steelworker."
"In Jack's opinion, neither was his, but we'll get to that," Arthur said.
"The fact remains, his is not an impressive score."
"You're right," Arthur conceded. "Jack's general intelligence is only a little better than average--not good enough, in theory, to get him into Columbia, even though he did well on the SATs. But I would like to suggest to you that this lack of a first-class mind is actually an advantage."
I said, "That you must explain to me."
"It makes him seem average to others when in fact he is not average at all," Arthur replied. "As I've said, he's extremely personable. People tend to think he's getting by on charm. They made the same mistake about Kennedy."
"In his case, money played a role."
"Okay, but for most of his life--right up to the day he died, if truth be told--his detractors thought they were smarter than him. Same thing with Jack Adams. That gives him a fantastic advantage. In the one respect that matters, political smarts, Jack is a brilliant, maybe even a unique, natural talent."
"How can you say this about a boy of twenty-one?"
Arthur was enjoying himself now. His IQ was much higher than 119, and he loved to show it.
"Trust me," he said. "Politics comes to him straight from the unconscious, in the same way that operas and symphonies came to Mozart. Whole concepts of how to use power just pop into his head, ready for orchestration. He doesn't even have to think about it. And he's never wrong. He's extraordinary in class, in his papers, in action. And unlike Mozart he has no Salieri. Jack doesn't have an enemy in the world. He's such a big dumb shit with such a dazzling smile that he excites no jealousy, no hostility. It doesn't matter what he does. It's uncanny. People will forgive him anything."
I interrupted. "What is there to forgive?"
"His sex drive," Arthur said. "He's mad for pussy. Tries to screw every female he meets, including the wives and girlfriends of his best friends."
"Does he succeed?"
"More often than not. It's puzzling in a way. The girls say he has absolutely no finesse--conies right at them, puts it in their hand. They say yes anyway. My wife says it's the way he smells."
"She's one of his conquests?"
"He made a pass," he replied. "Myra turned him down."
"Ah. But she noticed the way he smelled?"
Arthur smiled. He was not offended by my questions; he and his wife were people of their time and class--sexual revolutionaries who slept with whomever they wished. He reached into the little schoolboy knapsack he carried instead of a briefcase and handed over a thick brown envelope. Inside the envelope was Jack Adams's dossier, as compiled by Arthur's network of informants--at least one hundred pages of photocopied official records, together with neatly typed contact reports on Jack's background, behavior, apparent beliefs, and circle of friends. The contact reports--accounts of conversations with Jack--had been provided by student activists organized by Arthur to keep an eye on fellow radicals. These junior Chekists, all students of Arthur's, regarded themselves as a secret counterintelligence force whose work was necessary to protect the Movement from penetration by agents of the FBI, CIA, and other mostly nonexistent colonialist-imperialist enemies.
I put on my glasses and began to read. John Fitzgerald Adams--since birth called Jack and nothing but Jack--was the only child of a young woman named Belly Herzog. Belly herself had been an adored only child, pretty, smart, and lively. And--this is important--virtuous. In 1939, she was the Tannery Falls High School homecoming queen. This was the highest tribute to beauty an American village could pay, and in the period in question it could never have been bestowed on a girl who was not perceived to be a virgin. After high school, she became a registered nurse, and as soon as she was qualified, joined the U.S. Navy as an ensign. She was posted to a naval hospital in San Francisco. This was in 1943.
In her letters to her mother Betty seemed happy in her new life. She was promoted to lieutenant junior grade; her picture was in the Tannery Falls Evening Journal. Then, mysteriously, early in 1944, long before the war ended, she came home, discharged by the navy. A month later she married Homer Adams, a man ten years older than herself, a man too old for military service, a salesman of Hudson automobiles. On September 17, 1944, not quite six months after the wedding, Belly gave birth to Jack, a ten-pound baby.
It was Betty who insisted on naming the child John Fitzgerald, even though she had no relatives who bore either name. She gave no explanation. Her husband was angered and hurt. He wanted the boy to be named Homer, Jr., but Betty would not budge. "We'll call him Jack," she said. She corrected everyone who tried to call the child anything else--Jackie or Johnny or even John. "His name is Jack," she would say firmly. Jack remembered this vividly.
Betty and Homer Adams died five years later when a car driven by Homer, who was drunk at the time, crashed into a stone abutment at 70 mph. There were no skid marks at the scene. From his grandmother, Jack learned that Betty and Homer had had a terrible argument on the night of the accident--an argument so terrible that Betty had dropped Jack off at her parents' house, waking them at midnight. "Lock the doors, call the police if you have to, but don't let him touch my boy!" Betty had cried before running out into the night. This was the last time her mother saw her alive.
At his parents' funeral, five-year-old Jack had suffered a textbook trauma. The undertaker had done his best to put the smashed-up bodies back together. But to the terrified little boy, dangled over the open coffin by his weeping grandmother ("Kiss Mommy goodbye, Jack!"), the corpses, waxen and cold, looked like the stitched-together monsters in Frankenstein movies. Ever after, when Jack pictured death, his own or anyone else's, he pictured his parents in the funeral home.
Or so he told the people to whom he related this story--usually girls he was trying to seduce. Needless to say, Jack could not have seen very many Boris Karloff movies at the age of five, but he was never one to let facts stand in the way of a telling image. According to the reports, his voice broke as he summoned up the Frankenstein illustration; he covered his face with his hands and shuddered at the memory. Usually he was between the girl's legs moments later. Few objected afterward. Many reports mentioned that Jack was a single-minded, driving lover of amazing endurance. He bestowed orgasms on even the most disinterested partners.
"He does sex like in a dream, like he's in another state of consciousness," wrote one of his conquests. "Like he's on another planet. Like the woman is not there, or is somebody else. He just keeps going. And going. And going. Then he stops, gets up, and acts like nothing happened. This is weird but very sexy." The author of this report, who wrote on the basis of personal experience, was a psychology major. She thought that Jack's single-minded, blind copulations were an unconscious attempt to reenact his own conception over and over again. "Like he's trying to bring himself to life," she wrote.
Arthur watched me as I read. He saw that I was interested. He knew exactly where I was in the file, and what was coming next. I turned a page and came upon a brief report written by Arthur himself.
He said, "Heads up, Dmitri. The next part is the heart of the matter."
Indeed it was. As a teenager during the Kennedy presidency, Jack had discovered, hidden in the lining of his mother's naval uniform, several blurred photographs. One showed Betty in that same blue uniform, with her bright curly head on the shoulder of a scrawny young navy officer; other shots showed them together on a beach, or grinning at the camera from a convertible coupe. In one of these photographs, Betty, her young body obviously nude beneath the sheet that she held coquettishly beneath her chin, sat up in a rumpled hotel bed. In yet another, slim and naked, a truly lovely girl, she looked straight at the man behind the camera with the radiant smile of a woman in love. About that, there could be no doubt.
In the most important picture, the skinny young officer sat bare-chested in a hospital bed, grinning broadly, a bottle of beer in his hand and Betty's cap perched on his thick, tousled hair.
Arthur said, "Have you guessed?"
The answer was yes. But I replied, "Guessed what?"
"Jack's secret," Arthur said. "He thinks he's the love child of John F. Kennedy."
I took off my reading glasses and examined Arthur's face: a faint smile, a glimmer of triumph, but no sign of a joke.
"I kid you not," Arthur said.
I examined the pictures again. The quality was poor. They had been taken in feeble light with a cheap camera and inferior wartime film. These defects made them seem all the more authentic, of course.
I said, "Jack thinks this person in the snapshots is JFK?"
"He's certain of it," Arthur replied. "Read on."
The next item in the file was a magazine picture of the future president as he had looked in 1944 while recuperating from the injuries he received during the sinking of PT 109. This juvenile JFK was very thin, almost emaciated, but radiant with sexual glamour--just like the smiling young lover in Betty's snapshots.
Arthur said, "Jack thinks the snapshots were left to him by his mother as evidence that John F. Kennedy is his natural father."
"And you think that's possible?"
"The dates coincide. I researched it myself. PT 109 sank on August second, 1943. Kennedy spent some time in sick bay, then rode back to the States on an aircraft carrier. The carrier docked in San Francisco on January seventh, 1944. He stayed there until January eleventh. JFK being JFK, it's a fair assumption that he would have been looking for a piece of ass. He was in the navy; so was Betty. They were in the same town. Suppose he knocked her up tile night before he left. Jack Adams was born 281 days later. Do the arithmetic."
"What would that prove?"
Arthur said, "Nothing, in itself. To Jack, it proves everything. The idea that he is a Kennedy bastard is the central obsession of this kid's life. True or not, that's the key to his being."
He went on. As a teenager, Jack had confirmed all the dates, all the coincidences. He had studied press photographs of JFK and the one surviving photograph of the lumpish Homer Adams. He had studied himself in the mirror. He looked nothing like his mother, nothing like Homer. He could not possibly be Homer's son. Betty had tricked Homer into marriage in order to legitimize the pregnancy that had gotten her kicked out of the Navy Nurse Corps--a pregnancy that she had wanted, a pregnancy that lifted her out of the drab and meaningless existence into which she had been born.
What could Betty's strange history possibly mean except that her fatal accident had been a murder-suicide perpetrated by Homer, the salesman of Hudson Hornets, who had somehow discovered the truth about Jack's paternity? The more Jack found out about JFK's frenetic sex life, the more likely the theory became.
I looked at the snapshots again. Even through my eyes, there was no question about it: At 107 pounds, smiling with those strong white teeth after years of practice in the mirror, Jack Adams the draft dodger looked very much like the handsome bag of bones who had been the post-PT 109 Jack Kennedy.
It was a moonless night in May, quite warm. The darkness was almost liquid; you hung in it as in a tepid sea, seeing glimmers of light far above your head. Perhaps one streetlight in six remained unbroken. The garbage had not been collected for days. The sweetish odor of rotting vegetation rose to the nostrils, as in a rain forest untouched by sunlight. We walked on between darkened tenements. Although we could not see them, people sat on stairways in the balmy weather, drinking. In inky shadow, bottles clinked on concrete. Men coughed and spat, women scolded: murmurs, bursts of laughter, profanity. Loud, angry music.
There was no possibility of finding a taxi in this neighborhood, at this hour. I took Arthur by the arm and walked him westward, toward the Hudson River.
Arthur resisted. "You're going the wrong way," he said. "The subway is back there."
"I know. We'll walk."
I said, lying, "I have a pistol."
Reassured, Arthur walked with a lighter step. He knew about pistols. I had recruited him in Cuba, where he had gone to cut sugar cane for Fidel Castro. In a training camp in the Sierra Maestra, he had fired Russian pistols into bags of slaughterhouse blood.
I said, "I'm interested in this boy's cowardice. Tell me more."
Arthur said, "Dmitri, please. Why do you keep using that word? It's so irrelevant. Does such a thing even exist?"
"It exists. And it's always relevant."
"Whatever you say. But look at the whole picture, Dmitri."
"The file does not give me the whole picture. For example, some of these girls he slept with seem to think that he is not in his heart of hearts a person of the Left, that he has no real political convictions."
"I disagree," Arthur said. "Appearances can be deceiving, especially to girls."
"So the only thing that is important is his delusion?"
Arthur stopped in his tracks. He was a picture of misery. He said, "Dmitri, what are you saying to me? That I've fucked up again?" His voice trembled.
I put a fatherly arm around his shoulders and squeezed.
I said, "No."
He had no idea how well he had done. At that moment, of course, neither had I. Another hug. How thin he was in spite of his appetites, how frail. How hard he tried. Like a father I smiled, a smile of real affection, of expectations fulfilled.
I said, "I see possibilities."
Arthur touched my hand, the one that gripped his shoulder, and smiled back, this time like a man.
By now we had walked many blocks downtown. We were out of Harlem, near the Columbia campus, where Arthur lived, apparatchik that he was, in an apartment that belonged to the university. The light was better, the sidewalks were all but empty except for husbands walking little dogs. We could hear the traffic signals changing, feel the subway trains passing beneath the pavement. The dangers Arthur had feared were miles behind us.
He gripped my arm, making his points after the need had passed.
He said, "The point is, Jack has a great natural gift. Since childhood, he has studied people, found out what they wanted, and made them believe he was giving it to them even when he wasn't. Without money, without influence, without connections, he has risen to the top every time. He has this uncanny gift for making others like him. Trust him. Want to help him. It's like a spell he can cast at will."
I said, "You're describing a born liar." My tone was encouraging.
Arthur swallowed the encouragement I offered like a sweet and cried out, "Yes! That's the point."
"Then why didn't you mention it before?"
"I didn't realize its importance until just now. Jack lies about everything, all the time. He always has. He's not even conscious that he is lying. He lies to please, to manipulate, to get what he wants. The amazing thing is, everyone knows that he lies all the time and about everything, but nobody seems to mind."
"So what does that make Jack?"
Arthur threw up his hands. "You tell me."
"A megalomaniac in the making," I said. "A driven man. Unpredictable. Mad. Biting the hand that feeds him."
Arthur laughed in delight. "An American Lenin," he said. "Just what Dr. Dmitri ordered."
"I think I had better take a closer look at this young man," I said.
"You want to meet him?
"No. Observe him. In due course."
And that is how it all began.
Now, if you read the newspaper this morning, you know this isn't any crazier than what's been going on with our active president, you-know-who. And Charles McCarry is no science fiction writer. In fact, he's is more of a Washington insider than Seymour Hersh. After all, McCarry knows who killed JFK (but more about this later...).
Charles McCarry knows so much because he was a spy himself from 1958 until 1967. In 1973 McCarry wrote his first espionage novel, The Miernik Dossier, inaugurating the Paul Christopher spy series, which includes The Tears of Autumn, The Secret Lovers, The Last Supper, and Second Sight. McCarry is the American Le Carré. Except McCarry writes better. And Paul Christopher is cooler than Smiley.
Now, about JFK: In The Tears of Autumn, Christopher discovers who really killed President Kennedy -- the Vietnamese. McCarry was a spook in Vietnam during the early '60s, so his logic makes sense. Are we sure the novel is fiction? I figure that McCarry must be privy to the truth, so he knows the events he postulated in his novel never really happened.
Q: So you know who killed JFK?
A: I don't know who killed JFK. And if I did, I think it would be very wise for me to stay off television.
Q: You really lay out the truth in your note "To the Reader" at the end of Lucky Bastard: "...in our time history became fiction and fiction history."
A: Well, after all, we have a president who once had his way with Miss America in a limousine. What chance does imagination have?
Q: Can you quickly tell me your history again?
A: I wrote my first novel when I was in the army in Germany in 1949 or '50. It was the standard first novel about a star-crossed love affair with a German girl. Then I wrote three additional unpublished novels before I was 23. Each of which I felt was technically as good as anything I've written since, but I didn't know enough about the world to write about it, so I gave up writing fiction for 15 years -- while I tried to learn about the world. I spent ten of those years under deep cover in the CIA. Others I spent writing speeches for highly placed political figures. I walked through a lot of other doors to find out what was on the other side. At the end of those 15 years I learned so much about what the world was that the last thing I wanted to do is write about it. So it wasn't until 1973 that I published my first novel, The Miernik Dossier. Since then -- 27 years -- I've published nine novels and seven other books.
Q: If someone has never read the Christopher books, where should they start?
A: I've always said I didn't think it mattered where you start. It's a story about a family, and if you begin at the beginning and wander around, I think you'll do just as well as if you begin with The Miernik Dossier. I didn't write the books in fictional sequence, that is, The Secret Lovers, which is the third one, actually takes place before The Tears of Autumn, which is second. The Better Angels and Shelley's Heart are only marginally about the Christophers, so you could set those apart and read the six Christopher books either in the order they were written or starting at the end and going back to beginning. But I think it would be best to save Second Sight until the end because it is the one in which all the material is revisited. And Christopher's assumptions and conclusions are tested by reality. I think the others you can read in any sequence.
Q: Do you have a favorite?
A: That's like asking me if I have a child who is closest to my heart. The answer is, "No, not really." The only one that brought me to tears when I finished is The Secret Lovers.
Q: This is my theme question: How long did it take you to write each one?
A: My standard answer is: It takes three years and six months to write a book. Three years to think about it and six months to write it -- sometimes a little longer and sometimes a little less. I wrote Lucky Bastard in 90 days. I was attempting to write another novel, but I couldn't get it to come together because the plot of Lucky Bastard was pounding urgently on the door, insisting on being let out. So I put aside the first novel and wrote this one in, as I say, exactly 90 days.
I once had an editor who was alarmed at the way I work, which is: When I start I have a character and a first line, and I just go from there. And the characters tell me the story. A friend who is a great Christopher fan called me yesterday to ask, "Are you going to finish the Christopher story? What happened to Christopher?" I said, "Christopher hasn't told me yet."
Q: How different are you from Christopher?
A: Well, he's far better looking. I've been monogamous all my life.... I suppose that there's not that much difference between us. Christopher was monogamous by conviction, it's just the women would not allow him to practice the faith.
Q: Is Christopher the man you'd like to be in another lifetime?
A: Certainly not. Poor fellow! What a dreadful life!
He and I have shared the same sort of background. He's not an alter ego, but his experience as an intelligence agent -- not in the particulars, in the atmosphere and the way he judges the people whom he handles -- is a lot like the life I lived for ten years as an officer of the CIA.
Q: You had kids back then?
A: Absolutely. Nancy and I had two when I joined. And we had two more when we lived abroad. I must say that my wife is the real heroine of the piece. I would get a phone call at midnight and disappear for sometimes six weeks into the Congo or Southeast Asia. And she would be left alone in a foreign country with four children all by herself -- with no support attached to an embassy. We were undercover, living outside, pretending to be someone else. And she never knew when I was coming back exactly and had no way of communicating with me -- that, my friend, takes a backbone.
Q: Did she have a telephone number that she could call in a jam?
A: Yes. She did. Presumably they would have called her if they knew something had happened to me. [pause] But they might not have. One of the rules of tradecraft is: "Don't communicate unnecessarily because it gives away your position and your purposes." So often they didn't know exactly where I was or exactly what I was doing. And if I had vanished, it's quite possible that no one would have known what happened.
Q: Are there any novelists who are your peers in having experience practicing "the trade" of espionage? Somerset Maugham?
A: Maugham was a spy during World War I.
Q: And Ian Fleming?
A: Well, I don't know. I think during World War II, yes, he was. But Fleming was an inside fellow. Where as Maugham, like myself, was out undercover, recruiting and handling agents -- in his case eyeball-to-eyeball with the Germans in 1914-18, which was a rather dangerous thing to do.
It should be said that the odd thing is that spies are fascinated by the real world. They are as hypnotized by the details of the real world as you are by life within the intelligence community. What is strange is appealing. I must say, as we go along, that I'd rather talk about my book than what I did 30 years ago as an intelligence officer. You see how hypnotizing it is. It's been my experience on this subject that everyone forgets what I've done since. It's true that I was once a spy, but that was 31 years ago. I was also an Eagle Scout. I was...
Q: And you also know who Deep Throat is.
A: [pause] I did prove conclusively that he was not Alexander Haig.
Q: I've interviewed you before, remember? And I was proud that I didn't press you on your spy days.
A: Keep up the good work.
Q: I think I got you to open up a bit. The last spy question I have is: Did you have to be debriefed by the CIA before you could write fiction?
A: The oath that I took was that I would never reveal any secret that I learned during my employment. And I have never done that. And I never will. The rest of the stuff I made up -- no one said that I couldn't write fiction.
Q: You left the CIA, but you never left Washington, D.C., until this year. Are you having withdrawal symptoms?
A: No. Because I don't think that I can move away from the Washington that I created in my novels any more than Faulkner could have moved away from Yoknapatawpha County.
Q: Can you go a day without reading a newspaper?
A: Oh, I frequently go months without reading a newspaper. Writing Lucky Bastard I quarantined myself, and I didn't watch TV news or listen to NPR or even read a newspaper because I didn't want my characters to be contaminated from impressions derived from the media. I've done that in the past -- for as much as for two years. Odd thing is that anything that's really important -- like who won the World Series -- filters through. And when you pick up the papers after two years the front pages tend to be exactly the same as they were when you said good-bye to them.
Q: How different do you find life in America now the Soviet Union doesn't exist?
A: I think that it's very different. One of the reasons I wrote Lucky Bastard is because it was generally supposed that it was impossible to write about the cold war or the KGB since they had lost and we have won. As you know, I never wrote about a Russian in my novels except in passing -- I wrote about Americans in the cold war. I thought this time I would write precisely about the KGB and Soviet operations in the United States. To do so I invented a KGB colonel and allowed him to tell the story.
Q: What happened to the KGB agents who were in this country?
< A: I suppose that most of them are still here. What I read in the media is all I really know. Some agents have stayed in the renamed KGB. Others drifted over to the Russian Mafia. And others moved into politics and apparently honest lives (so to speak) as democratic politicians.
I suppose Lucky Bastard is to a large extent about the resiliency of the Soviet intelligence service. One of the characters in my book, Dimitri the narrator, says to Peter, the master spy, that he's disgusted with being in the KGB because it's an admission of the inferiority and eventual collapse of the Soviet system. If they hadn't spent trillions of dollars trying to steal our secrets, they might have invented their own technology and survived.
Q: Can we talk about the book?
A: Sure. In Lucky Bastard, you have a bit about Alger Hiss. What's the big deal about Hiss? He seems inappropriately important in American history...
Hiss was to radicals of the 1930s what Vietnam was to the counterculture -- the rock on which their generation broke in two. If you didn't live through the collapse of the American economy in 1929, you can't understand the degree to which people were frightened that the old order was going to come crashing into the abyss that yawned before us. They regarded Marxism as a bridge across that abyss and Hiss as one of the great secret bridge builders of history, while the right asserted that Hiss was nothing but a traitor -- and the rest of it sentimental moonshine. (See pp. 64-65 of Lucky Bastard for more details.)
Q: I don't want to give away the end of the book, but do you think we get the presidents we deserve?
A: That's a very complicated question. I think we get the presidents we believe. I think some, like Eisenhower, are completely genuine. I think people instinctively trust them. I think with the advent of television, presidents have had to fictionalize themselves in order to meet the preconception of the media as to what a candidate should be. Nowadays, we tend to get people who are not wholly genuine.
It's almost impossible to base a fictional character on a political figure because political figures are already self-made fictitious characters. They're performance artists. They tailor their every word and gesture, their wardrobes, in order to make a certain impact in the media. We no longer take pictures of people -- we have "photo opportunities" that are carefully staged.
Q: Have Americans always had a choice to be apolitical?
A: I think so. I've all my life known people who were, including myself. I have drifted in and out of political causes, but I'm a far more troublesome and dangerous thing than any liberal or conservative could be: I'm a writer. And my loyalty is to literature, which as Joseph Brodsky said, is a far more ancient thing than social formation or state. Brodsky said that a writer has one duty, and that is to write well. That is how I approach the world.
Q: Would it appall you if you learned that I've stopped voting?
A: Have you indeed? Why?
Q: [fumbles for words]
< A: You mean you feel there's no choice, there's no difference between -- ?
Q: I guess I'm a true cynic. I don't see that it matters one way or another who our leaders are.
A: Do you think that this is generally true of your generation?
Q: I'm not sure. It may just be me. Does this appall you, someone who doesn't vote?
< A: No. My father never voted. And for roughly the same reasons. He felt no politician could be trusted and that the strength of the county was in its people, and it would go on no matter what happened. And he died in his 80s, more than 30 years ago. He was born in 1885, so you can see it's a very old tendency in democracy.
Q: Does it depress you how little of importance novelists are to the running of a democracy
A: I don't think novelists have ever been very important to the times in which they lived. But I ask you this: Who remembers who was chancellor of England when Shakespeare was writing his plays?
Q: So I shouldn't worry that America is getting illiterate and writers will not matter?
A: The number of people who read has always been minute compared to the great mass of society and humanity. And that's probably as it should be. If everybody sat around reading and worrying the way you and I do, the world would come to an end.
Q: Perhaps email will make America literate again.
A: I think it will put us on record. There was a period where everyone stopped writing. We had "The Collected Telephone Calls of Lyndon B. Johnson," instead of "The Collected Letters." So there is a seed of truth in what you're saying.
There may be another beneficial effect, in that your generation will understand that they are suppose to answer their mail.
Q: [Gets the feeling that McCarry is referring to him, so he changes the subject...] I suppose the worst thing that happened to writers is the illusion in the 1980s that we could make money at this. We forgot that writers have always been deadbeats.
A: But think about Shakespeare. His plays were popular. And the one thing we know about him is that he was a man of property.
Q: I just read an essay by Elizabeth Hardwick about Shakespeare's will -- how he left his "second best bed" to his wife, and whether this was a slight or not. Which bed will you leave your wife?
A: Nancy gets the best bed.... And I plan to haunt it.
Q: One last question: Can you recommend any spy novels by other writers?
A: I would say that the best spy novel is The Polish Officer by Alan Furst. It came out maybe three years ago. I was just blown away by it. He's a truly gifted writer.
Q: What about Conrad's The Secret Agent? A: The Secret Agent was a novel about espionage, as opposed to a spy novel. I think there's a great body of work in which E. Phillips Oppenheim and some of the more recent practitioners such as Ludlum fall with no pretense to literature. Then there's another body of work about espionage into which I would put The Secret Agent, Maugham's Ashenden, which is really an episodic novel, and a very few others. There are writers who write about espionage in a way that Tolstoy wrote about star-crossed lovers. He wasn't writing a romance in Anna Karenina, he was writing a tragedy of the flesh.
Q:In a way, Lucky Bastard is also a "tragedy of the flesh."
A: [thoughtful silence....] Yes. In a way it is...
Posted April 21, 2013
No text was provided for this review.